Science in Christian Perspective



1984 Symposium:
The Future Becomes the Present

Freedom in 1984:
The Foundations of Totalitarianism

Beaver Falls

From: JASA 33 (March 1981): 19-23.

Freedom in the Historical Context

The American Revolution was fought with the passionate notion that freedom was not possible as long as a king ruled. As an unholy link in the Great Chain of Being from God to the lowest created being, a king was unnatural and an impediment to righteous government. To be truly free, a new people could be ruled only by law and not by a king.1

What the American Revolution did was to instill in the citizen the idea that freedom was natural. This notion of the inherent nature of freedom remains as an enduring part of our democratic way of life. Freedom is lost, we believe, only when some authoritative figure or force is intruded into our political system. The idea that freedom takes some other form or has some other genesis has found little support on this continent.

The classic sociological view of freedom, however, places the problem in a historical and not a political context. In an earlier age, the argument goes, life was simple with few alternatives open to us. With increased complexity in society, values increase in number and vie for our approval. The loss of freedom begins when we tacitly accept values deftly intruded into our lives by any of society's representatives. The maintenance of freedom depends on individual perception of the erosion of freedom and the proper exercise of responsibility in resisting that erosion.

As the sociologist par excellence, Max Weber linked the rise of modernization with the potential loss of freedom. With the increase of values, modern man had to develop a moral responsibility in his decision making if he were to remain free. His claim was "that freedom consists not in realizing alleged historical necessities but rather in making deliberate choices between open alternatives."2 Echoing this sentiment, John Dewey suggested that "any doctrine that eliminates or even obscures the function of choice of values and enlistment of desires and emotions in behalf'of those chosen weakens personal responsibility for judgment and for action. It thus helps create the attitudes that welcome and support the totalitarian state."3

Although the builders of the nation recognized the need for people to be free from external control, they also feared the inability of the people to govern themselves. "A government dependent on the character of the people would be fragile. If the people abandoned simplicity of manners and succumbed to luxury, the government would become corrupt and tyranical."4 Inherent in the idea of freedom was this notion that a basic morality was needed in the decisionmaking of everyday life. Indeed, it was not uncommon for Fourth of July orators to declare: "To be free we must be virtuous."5

It was that French prophet, Alexis de Tocqueville, however, who understood the wider meaning of freedom in a democratic state as few others did. Instead of warning against the encroachment of political despotism or urging virtuous living, he expressed a greater concern for the loss of freedom in a thoroughly benevolent society:

It would seem that, if despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them ....

I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world: our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories .... The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest, - his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind, as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not; he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country ....

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate . . . . For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? ...

Thus, it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained form acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd ....

Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day, and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated ... It is in vain to summon a people, who have been rendered so dependent on the central power, to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.6

It is unlikely that Orwell himself could have painted a more frightening picture of 1984. The loss of freedom comes with the dedication and development of a democratic state, and not with its demise.

Freedom in the Social Context

If the national experience provides us with a limited conception of freedom, we may benefit from the advice of that contemporary French prophet, Jacques Ellul. Echoing de Tocqueville, he says:

To say that freedom is graven in the nature of man, is to say that man is free because he obeys his nature, or, to put it another way, because he is conditioned by his nature. This is nonsense. We must not think of the problem in terms of a choice between being determined and being free. We must look at it dialectically, and say that man is indeed determined, but that it is open to him to overcome necessity, and that this act is freedom. Freedom is not static but dynamic; not a vested interest, but a prize continually to be won. He is most enslaved when he thinks he is comfortably settled in freedom.7

While Ellul emphasizes the fact that freedom is often lost when least expected, he also points to those conditions whereby freedom becomes slavery. The problem of maintaining freedom is partly structural and partly perceptual. What is required is an understanding of how people unwittingly surrender their freedom, especially in a modem society in which perception is confused by a welter of conflicting values.

Although the empirical research on freedom is sparse, what is available supports Ellul's contention. Studying groups with common living quarters, Hillery tried to understand how the perception of freedom was influenced by structure.8 He found that residents in monasteries, boarding schools, and sororities experienced freedom but for different reasons. While the monk was willing to give up one form of freedom to gain the freedom to do what he wanted to do, the boarding school students perceived their freedom in the greater options to do what they wanted to do. It is quite likely, then, that students would have defined the freedom perceived by the monks as slavery.

In a monumental effort to study "the authoritarian personality, " differing syndromes were found among the high scorers on the authoritarianism scale.9 These authoritarian types of persons varied in the intensity of their hatred of out groups as well as the manifestation of authoritarianism. One type, labelled "Manipulative," and considered to be potentially the most dangerous syndrome, has the most importance for us.

The continuing loss of freedom in a bureaucratic society must be seen as the prelude to totalitarianism.

Described as schizophrenic, the Manipulative personality is characterized by a break between the internal and external worlds with "a kind of compulsive overrealism which treats everything and everyone as an object to be handled, manipulated, seized by the subject's own theoretical and practical patterns . . . . The emphasis is on doing things, with far-reaching indifference towards the context of what is being done."10 This pattern, the authors claim, is found in many businessmen, managers, and technicians as well as in the Fascist mind. What characterizes these persons is an ,(organizational way of looking at things (which) predisposes them to totalitarian solutions."11

Weber recognized this totalitarian tendency in organizations in his path breaking study of bureaucracy. Noting the parallel rise of bureaucracy with democracy, Weber argues that bureaucratic forms become part of the entrenched machinery of democratic organizations. The sheer efficiency of bureaucracy makes it indispensable to rulers. But if bureaucracy weakens the freedom of a citizenry enmeshed

Russell Heddendorf has a BA from Queens College (CUNY), an MA from Columbia University, and a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh. His special interests are in the area of social theory and the sociology of religion, particularly in the integration of sociology and the Christian faith. He taught at City University of New York and at Dickinson College before coming to Geneva College in 1964. He is on the steering committee o the Christian Sociology Society, has initiated the meetings held annually by the Sociologists Teaching in Christian Colleges, and has served as a Consulting Editor of the Journal ASA since 1958. This Symposium was conceived and organized by Dr. Heddendorf.

in restrictive policies, it has the same effect on the bureaucrat who recognizes no organizational alternatives. The bureaucratic process becomes autonomous and supreme over the ruled and the ruler as well.12

The work done by Stanley Milgram tends considerable weight to Weber's theory and the idea of an authoritarian personality.14 Studying the attitudes of subjects required to shock others failing to give correct answers in an experimental situation, he found fully half of them willing to apply a dangerous shock of 450 volts even while believing the subject's safety and welfare were jeopardized. Milgram is quick to point out that these persons were not sadistic. Caught up in the experimental situation, they lost the necessary contact with the individual and became a willing, though protesting, cog in the scientific machinery. Submitting to the experimenter's claim that they "had no choice" but to shock the subject and to continue the experiment, these persons well represent the manipulative personality. Indeed, the true loss of freedom might best be summed up: "But I had no choice."

Whether freedom is inevitably lost with the development of bureaucratic structures is a moot point. If, as Ellul claims, freedom is not inviolate or natural, then it must be thought of as a process susceptible to the constant pressures of change. We tend to think of the final stage of a totalitarian state as the loss of freedom. In fact the continuing loss of freedom in a bureaucratic society must be seen as the prelude to totalitarianism.

Commenting on Weber's theory as it applied to the rise of Hitler's Germany, Frederick Burin suggests that the Nazis reshaped the bureaucracies they inherited." Using the bureaucratic machinery but removing its traditional authority, the Party gained the loyalty of bureaucrats who barely discerned the transfer of power. Indeed, as Weber predicted, Hitler depended on the technical expertise of the existing bureaucracies for "impairment of the efficient functioning of the military and administrative machines would have invited domestic chaos."15

What evolved was a new bureaucracy of mass irrationality and violence in place of the former bureaucracy of rational law. This "ideological bureaucracy" replaced the state and the law with the party and charismatic authority. Nevertheless, the bureaucratic system was maintained and reached its zenith with the SS police force. Unlike Russia after the Revolution, the social structure of Germany remained virtually intact although the authority system for that structure was radically altered. As part of the machinery, bureaucrats deprived others of freedom while unaware of their own enslavement. The perception of officials had been dulled to such an extent that they lost that which they thought they were preserving,

The Prelude to Authoritarianism

Describing the past decade, Arthur Schlesinger describes it as "a decade of exhaustion." There is "a need for some leader to believe in, someone who could restore a sense of confidence and end the pervasive feeling of national malaise." " Indeed, the situation may not be unlike that experienced in Germany prior to the rise of Hitler. A tired democracy is open to totalitarianism when a charismatic leader is seen as the answer to the nation's problems.

Freedom, Hillery claims, requires a definition of a situation to support it.17 Since freedom is not natural or inherent, people need to perceive some person or social situation as necessary for the maintenance of freedom. With Weber, Milgram, Adorno, and others, Hillery agrees that freedom requires that the highest value be given to the person, Any commitment to a task above and beyond the needs of the person reduces freedom as it has been traditionally perceived.

But if freedom demands a high value of the person, it is Zimbardo's opinion that this national malaise has produced an "Age of Indifference."18 By this he means that interest in people has been replaced by a fascination with things. He warns that this change is not temporary or developmental but systemic and strucural. A clear example of the problem is a divorce rate that revolutionizes society as much as it destroys personal lives. Nor does Zimbardo hesitate to put the problem in a religious context:

The Devil's strategy for our times is to trivialize human existence and to isolate us from one another while creating the delusion that the reasons are time pressures, work demands, or economic anxieties
.... Fostering in us the illusion of self-reliance, that sly Devil makes us mock the need for social responsibility and let's us forget how to go about being our brother's keeper-even if we were to want to.19

These three conditions leading to totalitarianism are prominent: indifference to other humans, reliance on technique to attain ends, and the inability to discern reality.

In this time of transition, an accurate perception of our situation is needed if wise decisions are to be made. Zimbardo's emphasis on the delusions of the day is especially disturbing, for if we believe the solution is within ourselves, we're on the road to failure. And that road might very well lead away from freedom.

If the cultural exhaustion now permeating society rouses our collective spirit instead of lulling us to sleep, we have two options. On one hand, we could believe the answer is to be found in a leader, one to guide the nation through the desert. On the other hand, our confidence could remain in our own hands with the technology used to solve past problems. In either case, freedom is jeopardized. Zimbardo leaves no doubt as to his opinion. "The message of 1984 may not be Orwellian but Garbo-esque: Big Person is not watching you. He doesn't have time to care about you anymore. She'd rather be alone."20

Assuming the latter choice is made, technology assumes a crucial importance in the prelude to authoritarianism. Weber saw technology as one of the correlates in the process of rationalization. "Weber thus identifies bureaucracy with rationality, and the process of rationalization with mechanism, depersonalization, and oppressive routine. Rationality, in this context, is seen as adverse to personal freedom. "21

Ellul is more specific: "No technique is possible when men are free."22 Technique requires a predictability and specificity destructive of human qualities. The person must become a technical animal to live in a world of technique. Ellul does not refer only to machinery which remains external to man, for technique has now become independent of the machine and has taken over all man's activities. The result is that "technique transforms everything it touches into a machine."23

In modern society, efficiency is the measure of everything and efficiency demands technique. Everything becomes means in the search for the best way to attain some end. This obsession with means, Ellul claims, is the modern form of rationalization that separates itself from everyday life and acquires an autonomy not unlike the organizational and manipulative situations surrounding the authoritarian personality.

Weber believed that rationalization led to the acceptance of a self-appointed charismatic leader who could become a despot. But Ellul sees the state, not the leader, as the in evitable threat to freedom. In a complex society, the in individual is not rational enough to make necessary policy decisions. Only the state with its array of techniques and power can act with decisiveness. To facilitate its task, the state must transform the unpredictability of the person into the predictability of the quantitative. Ellul claims technique becomes totalitarian with the process of quantification "and when the state becomes technical, it too becomes totalitarian."24

Is there any defense against totalitarianism? Weber claims that in political matters "what is decisive is the trained relentlessness in viewing the realities of life, and the ability to face such realities."25 But social conditions produce and even encourage those illusions which hide such realities from us.

Zimbardo reminds us that we avoid the fact of personal separation from others because we trivialize them.26 Only when isolation results in mental illness does the reality of indifference to others become apparent. In fact, Ellul would say, the human bond between men has been replaced by technique. They communicate with each other only through the agency of common, shared technique.

Indeed, we have become so accustomed to surface relations that any justification for our failures is accepted. This "explanatory myth," Ellul claims, extends into all life and makes sense of a complex world which otherwise lacks meaning and comprehensibility. "Man does not want to see himself in the real situation which the world constitutes for him .... The dramatic characteristic of this epoch, in this sphere, is that man no longer grasps anything but shadows. ... Reality disappears, the reality of man for himself, and the reality of the facts which surround him."27

Totalitarianism feeds on modern man's inability to perceive reality. In such a climate, freedom to choose is limited to those illusions to which man is enslaved. Can we believe, for example, that the campaign promises offered by political candidates offer any real choice or are linked to real possibilities? It is in this sense that Nisbet reminds us of the importance of language and the need to use it accurately in the description of reality. "It was with full and sensitive awareness of what he was doing that George Orwell made the corruption of language, the final breakdown of the authority of language, indeed, the key to the terrifying society he described for us in 1984. And what is Newspeak but a rather easy development of the language around us today in America"?28


Of those conditions leading to totalitarianism, these three, at least, are prominent: indifference to othe humans, reliance on technique to attain ends, and the in ability to discern reality. All three conditions characterize modern society and confirm de Tocqueville's warning of 150 years ago; we lose our freedom in a democracy when we fail to exercise it in our daily decisions.  

But freedom can never be "natural" while we live in an "unnatural" world. Bube is correct when he states: "Freedom can be experienced and developed only within the confines of created structure."29 When man constructs his own world of indifference, technique, and myths, he is robbed of a proper understanding of his relationship to God, people, and things. Indeed, Ellul states that people "can only meet in each the myth they themselves believe, and this myth is only an artificial creation . . . created in order to prevent modern man from going mad."30

Only in God's created world can man find the choices he needs for the life given to him. The simplicity of such an Eden is bounded by God's own mandates. To exceed those bounds or even to question them is to impose a new order on the world, an order constructed by man for the convenience of his own desires. Any conception of freedom outside of God's creation is merely a reflection, indeed, even an illusion of what God intended for man.

It is our human conception of freedom and nothing more that is eroded in man's world. instead of living in a world of simple solutions, we are enmeshed in a tangle of paradoxical possibilities. To solve those problems, man relies on the easy answers offered by technology and myths. And with that reliance, he loses his freedom.

The problem of freedom does reach its zenith in the complexity of competing definitions of reality offered by contemporary society. The inclination of modern man is to accept any plausible conception of reality offered to him by a despotic leader or a totalitarian state. But he is no more enslaved by such political solutions than he is enslaved by the confusion of realities befuddling his mind. A step into 1984, then, merely trades off one form of slavery for another.

The problem of freedom can be solved only with a clear perception of an enduring reality, one which remains changeless and perfect in the answers given to men. Bube reminds us that an appreciation of that reality is necessary for an accurate understanding of Jesus Christ who authorized that reality in creation.31 In that sense, we can claim the promise: "If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed." 32


1Ronald Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth Century America, New York, Alfred Knopf, 1979, p.8

2H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, New York: Oxford University Press, 1946, p. 70.

3Quoted by Gunnar Myrdal in An American Dilemma, New York: Harper, 1944, p. xlvii.

4Takaki, Op. cit., p. 9.

Loc. cit., p. 10.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by Henry Reeve, Vol. 2, New York: The Century Company, 1898, pp. 390-395.

7Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, translated by John Wilkinson, New York: Alfred A. Knopt, 1964, pp. XXXII-XXXIII.

8George A. Hillery, Jr., Charles J. Dudley, and Pulas C. Morrow, "Toward a Sociology of Freedom," Social Forces (March, 1977), pp. 685-700.

9Theodore W. Adorno, et. al., The Authoritarian Personality, Vol. 2, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1964, pp. 753-771.

10Loc. cit., p. 767.

11Loc. cit., p. 767-768.

12Gerth and Mills, op. cit., pp. 228-230.

13Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority, New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

14Frederic S. Burin, "Bureaucracy and National Socialism: A Reconsideration of Weberian Theory," in Robert Merton, et. al. Reader In Bureaucracy, Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1952, pp. 33-47.

15Loc. cit., p. 36.

Article in Beaver County Times, Thursday, December 13, 1979.

17George A. Hillery, Jr., "Freedom and Social Organization: A Comparative Analysis," American Sociological Review (February, 1971), pp. 51-65.

18Philip G. Zimbardo, "The Age of Indifference," Psychology Today (August, 1980), pp. 71-76.

19Loc. cit., p. 74.

20Loc. cit., p. 72.

21Gerth and Mills, op. cit., p. 50.

22Ellul, op. cit., p. 138.

23Loc. cit., p. 4.

24Loc. cit., p. 287.

25Gerth and Mills, op. cit., pp. 126-127.

26Op. cit.

27Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, New York: The Seabury  Press, 1967, p. 99.

28Robert Nisbet, "The Nemesis of Authority," The Intercollegiate Review (Winter/Spring, 1972), p. 7.

29Richard Bube, "A Proper View of Science Corrects Extremist Attitudes," Universitas (March, 1973), p. 3.

30The Presence. pp. 113-114.

31 Op. cit.

32John 8:36.